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Left out in the cold in Greenland

Europe

Nuuk, Greenland - Sixty million years ago, Greenland broke away from North America in a geological rift.

Thirty-four years ago, it broke away from Europe in a political rift.

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Greenland is the only nation in the world devoid of trees.

The 1982 referendum result that took Greenland out of Europe and into Arctic isolation was remarkably similar to the UK's vote: 53 percent in favour, 47 against. Since the people of Greenland voted to leave the then-European Community (EC), their island appears not just to have survived, but thrived - as the gleaming Greenland Bank tower in the centre of the capital, Nuuk, indicates.

 

 

A photo posted by Greenland Travel (@greenlandtravel) on

 

“We have the best of both worlds,” says Jon, a tour guide in Nuuk. “I guess that was what you were hoping for, too.” But he explains that “Greexit” has a very different quality to Brexit: “We have autonomy, but we are also part of a sovereign nation, Denmark, which is still in the EU.”

The Danish monarch is Greenland's head of state, and the Danish krona is the national currency.

Greenland has special trading rights with Europe that flow from its ties to Copenhagen. It is also heavily dependent on subsidies. Each year the Danish government sends the equivalent of nearly half-a-billion pounds - £6 600 (about R125 000) for every man, woman and child eking out a precarious existence on one of the most forlorn lands on earth.

 

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Where Shetland ends, at around 60 degrees north, Greenland begins. The country extends to just seven degrees short of the North Pole. Superlatives abound for Greenland. It is the largest island that is not a continent, though some geologists argue that it should be classified as one. There is no argument that it is the most sparsely populated country in the world. Fewer than 60 000 people, the same as a medium-sized British town, are spread across an area nine times the size of the UK.

Four-fifths of Greenland is covered by a permanent ice sheet, the only place that this phenomenon occurs outside Antarctica. The ice comprises one-tenth of the planet's freshwater, and its weight has depressed the rock to 1,000 feet below sea level.

Greenland is the only nation in the world devoid of trees; the Inuit people depended on driftwood from northern Siberia. And if the country is beginning to sound other-worldly - well, for metal, the Inuit had to rely, incredibly, on outer space. They scraped iron from meteorites that had fallen in the far north-west of Greenland. The largest of these iron-rich cosmic assets was appropriated by the American polar explorer, Robert Peary, and later sold by his widow.

Ever since the Europeans arrived a millennium ago, the story of Greenland has been exploitation - a position formalised in 1776 when Denmark awarded the Royal Greenland Trading Company a monopoly on the island's trade.

Whales and seals were the main commodities initially. But by 1953, when Copenhagen incorporated Greenland as a mere county of Denmark, the primary resource had become fish - with a side-industry in geo-politics.

 

 

Greenland is the leading exporter of cold-water prawns. For every citizen, one tonne of the creatures is sent abroad annually. The geo-politics came in during the Cold War, when the island's location midway between Washington DC and Moscow made it a strategic asset for the Americans. The US boosted the population by around one-fifth when they set up a series of bases for the DEW (“distant early warning”) line in preparation for nuclear Armageddon.

Such early warning stations were an essential part of the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): even if the Kremlin launched a pre-emptive nuclear strike, the theory went, the Pentagon could detect the missiles or bombers as they flew over Greenland. While that wouldn't save New York, Chicago or San Francisco from being obliterated, it would give the Americans time to retaliate and wipe out Moscow, Leningrad and all cities to Vladivostok. So, best keep the finger off the nuclear button.

The US invasion of Greenland brought cash and communications, but it also accelerated demands for more autonomy.

Denmark finally granted Greenland a measure of home rule in 1979. Three years later, it was hardly a surprise that the country chose to shrug off the chains of colonialism in the referendum on ties with Europe.

The British ministers now embarking on treaty negotiations with Brussels may care to note that the negotiations for “Greexit” took two years. That was in an era when ties with Europe were much looser.

The talks were for a nation with a tiny, primitive economy: the most significant aspect of the deal was a handsome annual payment from Brussels for limited fishing rights in Greenlandic waters.

For a country such as the UK, whose population is numbered tens of millions, not tens of thousands, the dimensions of detachment are mind-boggling.

The British visitor to the former Danish colony might imagine that the locals would salute another people from the northwest fringes of Europe who had voted to extract themselves from a flawed economic and political union. But instead the general response is astonishment that a nation which does not have a “mother country” prepared to prop it up with billions would choose to abandon the EU.

“We could leave without causing any problems because we were small,” says Henrik, who runs one of the hostels in Kangerlussuaq in a former US Air Force building. “But Britain is too big.”

The UK is also far more socially diverse than Greenland. The Inuit make up a clear majority of Greenland's population. Their transition from a non-materialistic subsistence lifestyle to a consumer economy has been troubled, with serious social problems from alcoholism to suicide. Life is harsh in these latitudes, with a Greenlandic term for the long months of darkness: perlerorneq, which translates loosely as “the burden”.

Some escape the winter by flying to Copenhagen. There are no formal passport controls between Greenland and Denmark. Greenlanders can travel to the entire Schengen Area without checks - except, oddly, at the railway station at Copenhagen airport if they seek to take a train to Sweden - an attempt to regulate the flow of refugees from outside Europe.

Greenland is a tough place to live, but a terrific destination to visit. In summer, when the sun barely dips below the horizon, the grass is greener in Greenland than the traveller from the south might imagine. The landscapes sculpted over billions of years are vast, empty and breathtaking in their austere beauty.

A nation that has prospered on the ocean is now turning to the land in a bid to diversify the economy away from its dependence on seafood. Tourism is seen as a prime candidate, with new flights launched this summer from Iceland. Extracting wealth from the bare rock is also key. Greg Barnes has just been selected as Prospector of the Year for his work searching for rare-earth metals in southern Greenland.

The UK's intersection of economic interests with Greenland seems limited to tourism. Brexit may increase incoming visitors because of the plummeting pound, though some forecasts say that the message sent out by the Leave vote will dissuade potential tourists. A crowded nation whose primary resources are intellectual, not natural, is about as far from Greenland as it is possible to be.

The main connection between the two Euro-escapees runs deeper than economics: it seems to be the wish to assert an identity and to cherish independence. In the case of the UK, that desire for autonomy transcends the financial self-harm our departure is causing.

“Good luck,” said Bis, a friendly worker for Air Greenland. “You will need some of ours.” He points to the sky, where another transatlantic jet is flying between Europe and America's west coast. In the jet age, being a very large country with a very small population is a distinct advantage. The overflying rights Greenland gets from each plane earn a few cents for every citizen. Nice work if you can get it.

The maritime chart of southern Greenland contains some features that may resonate after the Leave vote.

The Danish name for Nuuk was Godthab, or “good hope”; anyone sailing close by is warned of a “local anomaly” (not a reference to voting habits, but the magnetic field); and, as the mariner sets a course for Europe, the last land they see, at the southern tip of Greenland, is Cape Farewell.

 

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